This off-season the Pirates will probably face a much tougher set of roster decisions than they have in years. Several factors are coming together to create a lot of those decisions. The team has spent a couple years now accumulating players, very few of whom have established themselves as solid major leaguers. Many of the players who were acquired as major leaguers, or near-ready major leaguers, are out of options. Many of the prospects the team acquired will be eligible for the Rule 5 draft, so they have to be added to the 40-man roster or the team risks losing them. Finally, some of their existing major leaguers have shown that they simply can’t provide the solutions to any of the team’s many needs.
The crunch should be eased a little by the fact that the Pirates have little or no need to acquire veteran players for their bench. They finally have a large cast of infielders and outfielders already in the system who can fill those roles. They have no need to keep roster spots open for players like Ryan Church and Bobby Crosby, and the team’s approach of filling the bench with washed-up veterans has been a failure anyway.
Here are the players who are, or could be, candidates to come off the 40-man roster through one path or another:
ALSO READ: Candidates to be Added to the 40-Man Roster
Ramon Aguero – Aguero’s been plagued by injuries and has struggled when he’s been able to pitch. There’s a good chance the Pirates will DFA him and he’ll clear waivers.
Jose Ascanio – Ascanio is out of options and, since returning from shoulder surgery, hasn’t been able to pitch enough to establish a realistic hope that he’ll be ready for the majors at the beginning of next year. If he’s rebounded well enough from the surgery, which wasn’t as drastic as some labrum repairs, he still has significant upside, possibly even as a starter. The Pirates could DFA him and hope that he’d clear waivers due to the difficulty a claiming team will have in hanging on to him.
Brian Burres – Burres is a fungible AAA pitcher. He hasn’t even pitched all that well for Indianapolis. He’ll be released.
Zach Duke – Duke presents a problem, because he just can’t get enough hitters out while pitching for a weak defensive team like the Pirates. With offense steadily declining in MLB, a 5.00+ ERA is unacceptable. Unfortunately, reinforcements in the form of real prospects probably won’t start arriving until the middle of 2011 and the Pirates are unlikely to find a pitcher much better than Duke on the free agent market. He doesn’t have much trade value. Odds are he returns for one more year, or maybe just part of a year.
Sean Gallagher – Gallagher has been terrible out of the bullpen, walking as many as he’s fanned and getting hit hard. He’s another player who’d have a good chance of clearing waivers, so the Pirates might be able to remove him from the roster and assign him to AAA.
Kevin Hart – It’s very unlikely the Pirates will give up on Hart just yet. His labrum surgery didn’t reveal any rotator cuff damage, which means he has a reasonable chance of recovering well. He’ll supposedly be ready for spring training, but undoubtedly won’t be anywhere near ready to pitch in the majors. He’s out of options, so the Pirates will face the same issue with him that they face with Ascanio. He may be another candidate to be DFA’d in the hope that he’ll clear waivers, but that wouldn’t likely happen until during the 2011 season.
Jeff Karstens – Karstens has a very limited ceiling, but he’s been so useful to the Pirates this year that they’ll almost certainly keep him on for 2011.
Wil Ledezma – Ledezma has shown a mid-90s fastball and seems to have gotten over his control problems to some degree. Since a couple meltdowns soon after his callup, he’s mostly done well. He’ll probably be back.
Joe Martinez – The Pirates thought enough of Martinez to bother trading for him, although he strikes me as nothing more than AAA depth. They’ve tried him as a starter at Indianapolis since the trade and he’s been terrible, getting hammered consistently. He’s the sort of pitcher who should be on a minor league deal. The Pirates may be hesitant to remove him from the roster so soon after the trade, but he’d probably clear waivers.
Dan McCutchen – The Pirates preferred Hart to McCutchen for the fifth starter job coming out of spring training and seemed to lose confidence in McCutchen quickly after Hart’s problems left McCutchen as the default winner. Of course, with his pattern of nibbling, falling behind in the count, then getting hammered when he had to throw something in the strike zone, they probably had reason. McCutchen may have reinvented himself as a long reliever, but at this stage he’s very similar to Karstens, and the Pirates don’t need more than one Karstens. He’s a candidate to be DFA’d.
Charlie Morton – Morton’s another pitcher the Pirates won’t want to give up on just yet. He’s also another one who’s out of options. He’ll probably go into spring training fighting for a rotation spot.
Chan Ho Park – Park lost John Russell’s confidence in record time and was relegated to a white flag duty. He shouldn’t have been acquired in the first place. He’ll definitely be allowed to walk.
Chris Resop – The Pirates seem to be gaining confidence in Resop, as he’s pitched very well since they acquired him. He should be a lock for the 2011 bullpen and could even start at some point.
Justin Thomas – Despite his strong showing in AAA, the Pirates have given Thomas only a very brief look in the majors and they acquired the wreckage of Park rather than give him a longer one. He still has an option left, though, so they’ll probably hang on to him. He’s already been DFA’d once, so if they do it again he’ll be able to leave as a free agent.
Donnie Veal – With two options left, Veal isn’t going anywhere.
Ryan Doumit – The Pirates are in a difficult situation with Doumit, although maybe it’s one of their own making. Since he’s no longer the regular catcher, they’re trying to turn him into some sort of super-corner-utility guy. There’s just one problem: he isn’t hitting nearly enough to play first or right. He’s finally having that longed-for season in which he’s mainly been healthy, but he’s simply not showing himself to be the run producer they’ve believed him to be. On top of that, he’s a disaster defensively at any position. As a platoon/utility player he blocks others, like Steve Pearce and John Bowker, who might be more productive. He does provide the advantage of a backup catcher who can do other things and who can hit better than almost any backup catcher. The presence of Neil Walker and possibly Jeff Clement also frees them from the standard paranoia about using the backup catcher to pinch hit. Doumit, however, is making too much money for a bench player and will almost certainly be gone after 2011 in any event. They may be trying desperately to re-establish some trade value, but it’s unlikely they’ll get much for Doumit and they’ll have to pick up much of his salary in any event. I don’t know what the answer is with him, other than to be willing to do what it takes to get him off the roster. It needs to happen, because they have more viable short- and long-term options for a platoon or backup corner player, but I doubt it will happen.
Erik Kratz – The Pirates don’t have room on the roster to carry Kratz, Doumit and Jason Jaramillo. Kratz made a nice story, but he showed no sign of being able to hit major league pitching in his brief callup and he’s not going to get any extended opportunities in any event. Unless they either trade Doumit or decide Kratz is simply better than Jaramillo, I don’t see him staying on the roster.
Jeff Clement – Like so many of the Pirates’ other acquisitions, Clement has raw ability—in his case serious power—but hasn’t shown that he can put it to use in the majors. They’ll be reluctant to give up on him just yet. He’ll probably go to spring training to battle for a job. He’s out of options.
Akinori Iwamura – Bye.
Andy LaRoche – Like some of their other acquisitions, LaRoche presents the question whether they can let go. His hitting has collapsed so completely that he has no value even as a bench player. They’re already certain to carry a non-hitting, good-glove infielder—probably Argenis Diaz—who can back up all the infield positions. LaRoche can’t play short, so he can’t fill that role. Delwyn Young gives them a bench player who can stand near second or third in an emergency and whose bat has value. This makes LaRoche completely superfluous. The Pirates also have a host of second- and third-tier infield prospects already in AAA or AA. None of them looks very likely to be a good major league hitter, but LaRoche certainly isn’t. If Pedro Alvarez or Walker suffers a significant injury, the Pirates are pretty much screwed with or without LaRoche, so one of their infield prospects would be a good enough fallback. He won’t likely fetch more than a marginal, low-level pitching prospect, but the Pirates need to get what they can and move on. I’m guessing, however, that they won’t be able to do it.
Steve Pearce – Pearce’s situation is downright sad. He made huge strides in AAA and looked good in his brief major league time. Then just when it looked like he might get a chance to find a role on the major league roster, he went out for the year with a pair of injuries. Now he’s out of options. The team needs a right-handed corner bat, but there are player in his way, most notably Doumit and LaRoche. Neal Huntington has said the team has an “outside chance” of getting a fourth option for Pearce, but that seems extremely unfair. He’s 27 now and has earned a real shot, but another option would just about guarantee him a return to AAA. In any event, he’s very likely to go into spring training battling for a job.
Delwyn Young – Young isn’t going anywhere. He’s too useful as a pinch-hitter, which is a difficult role to fill.
John Bowker – Except for being left-handed, Bowker is remarkably similar to Pearce. He’s dominated AAA, but hasn’t established himself in the majors. He’s also 27 and is also out of options. Unlike Pearce, who’s a capable firstbaseman, Bowker is a liability defensively at first or in right. Like Pearce, he’s potentially blocked by Doumit and LaRoche. And also like Pearce, he figures to go into spring training fighting for a job.
Gorkys Hernandez – Hernandez probably forestalled any thought of being removed from the roster by getting hot for the 6-7 weeks before going out for the season with a broken hand. He still has just enough upside that it’s unlikely the Pirates would risk losing him.
Certain to be Gone: Burres, Park, Iwamura.
Good Chance of Being Released: Thomas, Kratz.
Good Chance of Being DFA’d: Aguero, Ascanio, Gallagher, McCutchen.
Trade Candidates: Duke, Doumit, LaRoche.